Q: The relaxing of sanctions against Iran in exchange for a temporary halt in its nuclear program has produced a significant jump in sales of Iranian oil–which hit one-year highs in January and February. Is there a chance Iran will view this friction-free trade capability–and the wealth it produces–as an opportunity worth trading its nuclear ambitions for?
A: In November 2013, Iran and the P5+1 (the negotiating group composed of the Permanent Five members of the Security Council and Germany) agreed upon a “Joint Plan of Action” to govern further negotiations regarding its nuclear program. The “JPOA,” as it has come to be known, effectively pushed the pause button on further developments in Iran’s nuclear enrichment capability, while also providing certain very limited forms of sanctions relief. Indeed, the JPOA actually required Iran to cease further developing of certain enrichment capabilities (at least for now), and to dilute Uranium that it has enriched to the near-20% level. It also requires Iran to submit to stringent verification measures. In exchange, the P5+1 agreed to limited sanctions relief, which includes a suspension of certain sanctions on gold, Iran’s auto sector, and Iran’s petrochemical exports, as well as the repatriation of some Iranian assets held abroad. The P5+1 also agreed to pause efforts to reduce Iran’s oil exports, while repatriating only a limited amount of the revenue generated from sales that take place during the JPOA period.
It is important to remember that the JPOA is not a final deal between Iran and the P5+1 over its nuclear program–far from it. It is an interim step designed to build confidence and to create space for negotiations over a more lasting arrangement. And there are significant political decisions that must be made before any final agreement can be reached. The P5+1 must decide what kind of an Iranian enrichment capability it feels comfortable with, and what verification measures will provide confidence that Iran continues to adhere to any deal. Iran, for its part, must decide whether the sanctions relief the P5+1 is prepared to offer is sufficient to offset the benefits Iran derives from its current enrichment posture. And far from being a discussion only between Iran and the P5+1, the concerns of the P5+1’s regional allies will also factor into the ways in which all parties conceptualize the tradeoffs involved. In short, it is too soon to say what will be sufficient inducement for Iran to give up important dimensions of its nuclear program. Only that the discussions are ongoing, and that the world waits with bated breath to find out.
—Zachary K. Goldman is the Executive Director at the Center on Law and Security at NYU. A former Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he has published in Political Science Quarterly, Foreign Affairs and The Atlantic, among others.